On Hermeneutics and Disagreement, Part Two

I started out my talk with Northern Indiana by stressing the importance of everyone doing what we can to make the circumstances favorable for the Spirit to clarify what we ought to think by way of divergent biblical interpretations. If we begin with a determination to win, we foreclose the possibility that the Spirit is up to something for which we’re unprepared — and since we’re asking our neighbors to recognize that they’re in error, it behooves us to acknowledge that possibility for ourselves. That’s not because the truth is a matter of indifference, but precisely because the truth is greater than our determinations. In the words of Pope Paul that I’ve quoted before, “Truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.”

So, point one: we do best to make room for the Spirit’s power to convince by forgoing flat claims about the Bible, asserting unverifiable justifications (whether in the name of the Spirit or of one’s feelings), recognizing that we all are subject to error, offering clearly-articulated reasons rather than just name-dropping, and by showing respect to our colleagues.

Point two: Difference is not the problem. Divergent interpretations are part of God’s generous provision for a varied humanity. That does not mean that anything goes, that all are equal, that differences don’t matter (I remember emphasizing with particular vigor the pain that claims about theological particulars “not mattering” give me). First of all, we need to recognize that difference has always inhabited biblical interpretation, and for generations the doctors of the church were entirely comfortable with that. [Added later: Hans Dieter Betz and W.D. Davies and Ulrich Luz and A.J. Levine disagree about how best to interpret Matthew, but the church doesn’t call a conference to cope with that.] Difference won’t go away, and we shouldn’t want it to. Rather, we need to distinguish between differences that contribute to the harmony of truth (on one hand — not that truth itself is plural, but that the unity of truth is constituted by harmoniously-ordered differences), and differences that disrupt, deflect, distract from the truth (on the other). In other words, we need to make clear how the different elements of the truth hang together — and why certain claims don’t belong to the truth.

The “difference is okay” point coheres with the point about “no flat claims” point, as both of them drive people who care about one another to give reasons for their interpretive proposals.

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  1. By introducing scholars here you necessarily bring in a complicated and sometimes touchy point: biblical scholarship is conducted in accord with and for the promotion of biblical scholarship–which is only sometimes related to the aims and upbuilding of the Church. Especially as the guild becomes more modernized and professionalized, I wonder how much commitment there is to scholarship the addresses congregationsal issues (though I was gratified to see the two new SBL sessions on it…)

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